A Conversation with Katherine Taylor, author of the novel Valley Fever.
What is Valley Fever?
In the case of my novel, Valley Fever is a metaphor for the conflicting feelings of returning to your hometown. In reality it is a fungal infection caused by tiny organisms found only in the soil of Central California (and parts of Arizona). It’s aggressive, it’s debilitating, it can kill you, and there’s no cure.
Your main character Ingrid Palamede has searched the world looking for a place to be and she ends up at the place she was raised, trying to save her parents’ farm. Is the resistance Ingrid has to Fresno, to going home, a resistance to the place, or is it a resistance to who she is?
The central question! How interlaced are place and identity, or identity and home? Recently I looked at early notes for this novel, and was floored that originally Ingrid favored selling the farm, or developing the land, and the crisis of the novel was trying to get her parents to see her point of view before a real financial hardship set in. Of course, that’s completely out of character for Ingrid as she’s written. (That might be something her sister Anne would do, but not Ingrid.) Ingrid’s personal conflict is her attachment to the land vs. her aversion to what she sees as a provincial way of life. Is this a superficial conflict, or is this a fundamental schism between who Ingrid is and the way she perceives herself? In the end, I think, she may not find every answer, but at least she begins to realize the questions, and this alone is a triumph of self-awareness.
How do you know so much about growing grapes?
That’s exactly what my mother asked when she read the book. Research, a lot of research. I still read the Western Farm Press Daily every morning, I have grown so attached to it.
In 2011, I called my editor at the time, Courtney Hodell, to tell her this novel, which at that point I’d been writing for six years, was not working and was never going to work. I called to tell her I was tossing the whole thing and writing something new. “Absolutely not,” she said. “You need to make your protagonist more active.” In that draft, Ingrid was telling the story, but she wasn’t involved in the story. “You need to place her on the farm,” Courtney told me. “But that would require so much research,” I said. And she said, quite plainly, “Katherine. Do your research.”
This was October, and harvest season was just ending. I hung up that phone, got in my car, and drove directly up to Fresno. My parents have farmer friends who were incredibly generous with their time, their knowledge, their personal stories. I couldn’t have written the book without the magnanimous farmers of Fresno. I spent a lot of time driving around with my father’s friend Dewey, who had vines at the time but has since replaced them with almonds. I spent a lot of time speaking with farm managers and farm brokers and fruit distributors and wine makers. Ken Post at Madera’s Cru Winery was really helpful, not only in educating me about wine and the winemaking process, but also introducing me to people at the big manufacturers whose names I’ve sworn not to reveal.
Okay, don’t reveal those names, but how much of Valley Fever is based on real people or events?
In the very beginning, I had in mind a story of something that had happened to my father’s good friend when I was a child. It’s one of those stories that has obsessed me since I was small, a fundamental story of friendship and ruinous betrayal. But then, as the novel progressed, the story took on a life of its own. So it started with a seed of true-friendship-crimes, and then it evolved.
Can you talk about the cut-throat nature of the farm industry in California’s Central Valley?
Well, it’s just math. If someone else’s harvest is weak, it makes your crop more valuable. As far as the land itself, there’s the question of water, always water. The best land has the best water rights, or the best ground water. If someone who’s got a lot of good land gets into financial trouble, there’s not a farmer in town who’s hoping he gets out of it.
Also, it’s usually not big companies that steal farms from the little guys. That happens, but not as often as you’d think. It’s usually just a bigger, richer farmer, someone who didn’t take on as much debt when times were good, but who waits to gobble up land from his friends and neighbors when times are bad. Something like 90 percent of the farmland in California is family owned and run. I’ve never understood what “corporate farm” means, because even the huge rich farms are still all family owned and run, and these are people who’ve been doing it for generations.
You talk about the central California valley landscape so evocatively – but after all it’s dry, dusty, sun-baked, drought-ridden, and oppressively hot. What is attractive about it to you? What do you love about it?
I don’t know. I grew up there, so there’s something of that landscape weaved into who I am. A lot of that landscape, I guess. There is no weather I love more than 115 degrees and dry, dry, dry – and in Fresno, when it’s July or August and the weather gets hot like that, the whole town begins to smell like drying fruit, somewhere between rot and fermentation. I love that. That smell alone is worth the drive up there. When I drive from LA to Fresno, that first moment when you get out of the car and are hit by Fresno’s fruity, devastating heat – that’s just heaven.
Your debut novel, Rules for Saying Goodbye, also dealt with home, homesickness, the relation of home, roots, and identity. Why do you think we are compelled and repelled by the place we come from?
Possibly not everyone is, but I don’t know these people personally. Possibly there are many people who live entire lives quite content in the place they came from, with no geographical anxieties or existential conflict. Maybe it’s just the unlucky restless ones who have this sort of crisis of self.
I’m an unlucky restless one. I grew up in a neighborhood I still think of as one of the most beautiful in the world, with century-old cork oaks and fig trees and deodara cedars, gorgeous houses built in the 1910s and 20s. I love returning to Fresno: there’s a secure sense of familiarity exclusive to your hometown. But I dread it, too – as Ingrid says in the book, I dread a whole town full of people who don’t care that there’s no bookstore, seeing those terrible haircuts, the prospect of popping into the Whole Foods and running into the fifth grade teacher who tormented me. There’s the fear that where you’re from will define you, and that fear is founded.
This is, ultimately, a story of love and betrayal, as well as a coming to terms with where we’re from. Can you talk about that and also about the role of forgiveness in Valley Fever?
I guess I have a feeling that yes, there’s love and betrayal and a struggle with the idea of forgiveness in the book, and that’s all on the surface. It’s what’s inside the little fissures of the surface that interests me the most – what we talked about earlier – home, identity, loss. Ok, forgiveness, too – forgiveness is in the little fissures on the surface that kind of open up into chasms. Stories of love and betrayal are a kind of structure for other ideas to build on. I’ve got the love and betrayal so I can hang up some homesickness and loss.
In the end, yes, Valley Fever is about accepting where you’re from, and everything that implies, which means it’s also a novel of self-acceptance and self-actualization. I tried to give a fundamentally honest portrayal of Fresno as a character, with its virtues and its limitations. But I have a tenderness toward the Central Valley, so maybe at times my version of Fresno is slightly romanticized.